Movie review: Paul Thomas Anderson nails tone in stoner mystery "Inherent Vice"

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

Paul Thomas Anderson’s film version of Thomas Pynchon’s “Inherent Vice” is a stoner detective story in every sense. And it’s inherent to your enjoyment of the movie to know what that means going in.

I prognosticate quite a bit about filmmaking as a storytelling medium at heart, but “Inherent Vice” is a movie where the plot is not the point. In fact, keeping up with the plot — a hazy and complex web of crazy conspiracies and crazier characters — is difficult enough for the audience, let alone the movie’s pot-puffing protagonist.

But it was when I learned to let go that Anderson’s vibe started to take hold. In a recent interview, he said, “I never remember the plots of movies. I remember how they make me feel.” After multiple viewings, “Inherent Vice” makes me feel groovy.

While Pynchon’s jazzy novel seems like a terrible candidate for the screen, Anderson finds unexpected ways to make it work. Set in 1970 Southern California — the end of the hippie heyday, thanks to the Manson Family — it centers on Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix). When former lover Shasta (Katherine Waterston) makes a surprise visit to his home on the beach, Doc finds himself in the middle of an elaborate mystery.

And, oh boy, is it elaborate. “Inherent Vice” has the most moving plot parts of anything Anderson has tackled since “Magnolia.” And I assure you, you will get lost if you try to follow every lead. I’ll repeat myself here: The plot is not the point.It’s digressive and much like someone trying to tell a story when they’re stoned.

Anderson gets this, and he also gets the vibe. Everything from the gorgeous cinematography to the soundtrack tunes to the score — Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood doing a borderline parody of the meandering solos of The Doors — reaffirms the vibe. And the vibe is sunny, good-times California with something dark lurking around the corner.

Paul Thomas Anderson is also an actor’s director, and his reteaming with Phoenix from “The Master” seems like the start of a Scorsese/De Niro kind of partnership. Phoenix is mumbly, ends even declarative statements with question marks and is absolutely perfect for the role. As is, well, the whole cast, really — though I have to highlight Josh Brolin’s amazing hippie-hating cop.

It could rightly be called a mess, but “Inherent Vice” features so many fantastic, funny and heartbreaking scenes, I can’t stop watching it. When you stop looking at the forest, you’ll see the beauty in the trees.

"Inherent Vice"

Opens Thursday night

4 stars out of 4